In Belgium, food is a big deal and yet the country is only just starting to be recognised as a gastronomic destination. Typical Belgian cuisine isn’t that known abroad and beyond the classic “snacks”, such as Belgian chocolate, beer, and waffles, most people couldn’t name a traditional Belgian dish, let alone know where to eat it.
So I’ve paired up with Alison from Cheeseweb to put together a list of things to eat in Belgium. While Belgium is a young country, you could say these are all traditional Belgian dishes. That being said, not all these foods are wildly popular foods in Belgium. Some of them we’ll gladly order at any cafe, others we associate with our grandparents and the joys of a sturdy, home-cooked meal.
Because a list of Belgian foods is no good if you don’t know where you can get them, we’ve also tried to recommend a few places where at least one of these dishes is really good. We focus on Brussels food places as, well, lots of people travel to Brussels, but have occasionally also broadened our scope a bit. If you’ve ever been to a place that served a mean version of one of the foods we’ll list, let us know, and we might just include it – but only after having tested it first, of course 😉
Belgian cuisine: 6 typical Belgian dishes and where to try them
Moules-frites, in French, Mosselen-Friet, in Flemish, or mussels with fries, is a classic Belgian dish you can find at just about any café or brasserie in Brussels. It’s one of the foods to eat in Belgium. The most common way mussels are served in Belgium is steamed in white wine, in big black mussel pots. In addition to wine, moules marinières also contain shallots, parsley, and butter. Other cooking methods include cream, beer, or even mustard sauce.
Mussels, on their own, can be served as an appetizer, especially shared among friends, or you can enjoy them with fries as a main course.
Like most things, not all mussels are created equal. You may be tempted by the picturesque Rue des Bouchers in Brussels and the heaped platters of seafood there, but steer clear (unless you like being overcharged for bad service and substandard food.)
Eat them in Brussels at:
La Bonne Humeur – This unassuming looking restaurant has been serving mussels to Bruxellois since 1954, so they know their stuff. They also offer a variety of styles, in addition to the traditional moules marinières, including cream, garlic, green pepper, and even curry. (Read a full review of La Bonne Humeur)
Chaussée de Louvain 244, Brussels
NOTE Apparently, Le Bonne Humeur has closed down since the publication of this post. Another local recommended us to try Zinneke instead for great mussels.
Place de la Patrie 26, 1030 Schaerbeek
Fries(frites in French or frieten in Flemish) are somewhat the national dish of Belgium. You’ll never hear a Belgian call them “french fries”, not even when speaking in English. There’s a lot of controversy around who invented fried potatoes, but I promise you – Belgians perfected them. Once you eat fries in Belgium, they’ll never taste as good anywhere else.
The secret to the perfect Belgian fry is two-fold. First, the potato itself must be a soft variety, but, most importantly, the freshly cut potatoes must be fried twice: First at a lower temperature to cook the inside to a soft, fluffy consistency; and second, quickly at a higher temperature to cook the outside to crispy perfection.
While you can get Belgian fries at virtually any restaurant, they are invariably best from a genuine friterie (French) or frietkot/frituur (Flemish). These fry shops can be anything from a small building to a fry truck and the best ones are hotly contested and voted on annually. While most do serve other foods (all of them deep-fried), the emphasis is always on cooking fries to crispy, golden perfection.
Some friteries or fries shacks still serve their fries in traditional paper cones, while others have turned to the more convenient but less eco-friendly plastic containers. Either way, any good frituur will offer a mind-boggling array of sauces to choose from and, yes, most are mayonnaise based. But, trust me on this one, there really is a sauce for everyone – other than ketchup. Try aioli for a garlicky-mayo hit, or the popular andalouse, a mix of mayo and tomato sauce with a hint of paprika. I’m a spicy kind of gal, so my go-to is samurai sauce, a kicked-up version of andalouse. If you’re brave, you can experiment with anything from peanut to curry sauces, so act Belgian and expand your sauce horizons.
Eat them in Brussels at:
Maison Antoine – There’s always a line at this outdoor Brussels food stand and that’s a great sign. You can also take your cone of fries to most of the local bars, as long as you order a drink.
Place Jourdan, 1040 Etterbeek
Fritkot – This fry trailer is close to Grand Place but far enough that you won’t find many tourists. Grab a park bench and enjoy.
Place de la Chapelle, Brussels
Meatballs are a Belgian favorite, on both sides of the language divide, and are usually a mixture of beef and pork. In Flanders, balletjes or “balls” are often served smothered in tomato sauce, or, sometimes, Frikadellen-style; fried in butter with Belgian cherry sauce.
South of Brussels, boulets Liégeois are the rage. These meatballs are served with a rich sauce of beef stock, spices, and sirop de Liege, a fruit syrup a bit like molasses, made from apples and pears.
Whichever style you prefer, you can guarantee they will come with crispy Belgian fries.
Eat them in Brussels at:
Balls & Glory – While not exactly served in the traditional style, I guarantee these will be the best meatballs you’ve ever eaten. Using locally sourced, mostly organic ingredients, Balls & Glory serves up giant meatballs filled with a variety of sauces.
The balls are mainly pork, but there are beef, lamb, chicken, and even veggie versions available. Your ball comes served on stoemp (a potato and veggie mash) or with a salad. Try the blue cheese or truffle varieties, or stick to the ‘retro-balls,’ the way grandma made ‘em. Balls & Glory began in Antwerp and is quickly taking Belgium by storm. (Read a full review of Balls & Glory)
Lakenstraat 171, Brussels
4. Flemish Stew
If Alison had to pick one favourite Belgian dish, it would be Carbonnade à la flamande (French) or Stoofvlees (Flemish). This Flemish stew literally translates to “stew meat” and that’s a pretty accurate description.
This typical Belgian food is made from beef slowly simmered in Belgian beer until it melts in your mouth. The sauce is thickened with a few slabs of bread slathered in mustard, a bit of onion, and some seasoning. Some chefs add other ingredients like mushrooms or garlic, but the traditional recipe focuses on Belgian beer and beef.
Good Flemish stew is so much more than the sum of its humble parts. In the right hands, it can be both rich and slightly tart from the beer. It’s the perfect comfort food on a wet winter day, especially as it is invariably served with French fries or mashed potatoes. It warms you from the inside out.
Eat it in Brussels at:
Café Novo – a short walk from Grand Place, this café does a great, traditional Flemish stew, served with fries. Place de la Vieille Halle aux Blés, 37
5. Grey Shrimp Croquettes
The tiny North Sea grey shrimps are ubiquitous in Belgium. If you dine at one of the many seafood restaurants in the Sainte-Catherine neighborhood in Brussels, chances are you’ll be presented with a small bowl of these crunchy crustaceans to snack on.
Not only are grey shrimps sweet and delicate, they are part of Belgium’s cultural heritage. Traditionally, these shrimps were harvested along the coast, from France to the Netherlands, by fishermen on horseback.
The only place this tradition is still practiced is the village of Oostduinkerke, on the Belgian coast, and it was recently inscribed on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. If you have the opportunity to see this spectacle you definitely should.
Alison’s favorite way to eat grey shrimps is in a shrimp croquette, (garnaalkroket in Flemish). While there are plenty of bland, frozen, and refried versions served around Brussels, croquettes made from scratch are a revelation. The outside should be a thin, delicately crispy crust. When you break through, the creamy shrimp mixture should be molten and oozing. They make a perfect starter or snack.
Eat them in Brussels at:
Noordzee / Mer du Nord – For a truly local experience, order your croquettes (and a glass of white wine) from this fish counter on Place Sainte Catherine. It’s a local favourite, especially in the summer. These are my favourite croquettes in Brussels.
Rue Sainte Catherine 45, Brussels
Les Petits Oignons – If you prefer to try your croquette sitting down, this restaurant is a close runner-up for the best shrimp croquettes in Brussels.
Rue de la Régence 25, Brussels
Are you ready for something sweet? I thought so! When you think “Belgium” and “sweet”, Belgian waffles are one of two things (chocolate!) that immediately come to mind. As with “French fries”, there is some confusion about the term “Belgian waffles”. In fact, there is no one Belgian waffle, but rather two types of waffles, both originating in Belgium.
The Brussels waffle, or gaufre de Bruxelles, is rectangular and flaky. It isn’t as sweet as its rival but is often topped with whipped cream, chocolate, ice-cream or various fruit toppings.
The denser Liège waffle has rounded edges and crystallized sugar baked into it, making it slightly sticky and sweeter than the Brussels waffle. This is the kind that’s sold from hole-in-the-wall places everywhere in the center of Brussels.
Eat them in Brussels at:
Whatever you do, avoid buying the over-priced waffles at the shops around Grand Place that are covered in way too many toppings. (In fact, waffle purists say you shouldn’t top your waffles with anything.) You can get both types of waffles from trucks (usually painted yellow) parked around most tourist hot-spots in the city.
There is also a surprisingly good chain, called Belgaufre, found in most metro stations around the city center, adding a tasty smell to the many less pleasant smells of the Belgian underground.
If you want to fancy things up a bit, my favorite Belgian, or rather Liege, waffle comes from the Dandoy Tearoom, steps from the Grand Place. Dandoy is a traditional Belgian cookie maker, with shops around Brussels. From the street level, the Dandoy shop on Rue Charles Buls looks much like the others. But step inside and you will see a couple of differences.
For one, there is normally someone making fresh waffles behind the counter, to sell as takeaway treats. Secondly, you’ll notice a set of stairs, heading up to the Tearoom. There, you can sit and enjoy a waffle at your leisure, while admiring the collection of antique speculoos molds decorating the walls. (Read this article for more on Dandoy and the best waffles in Brussels.)
7. Eel in the green
Eel in the green is exactly what it sounds like: eel prepared in a highly green sauce which is colored that way because of the many green herbs that go into it, such as parsley, watercress and basil. The herbs are added last minute to have them retain their color and the dish is commonly served with, of course, fries.
It’s more of a flemish dish than a Belgian food. Fishermen used to catch the eel in the river Schelde, close to Antwerp, and then prepare them with whatever herbs they found along the shore. Now often served in the more classy bistro, it has a very humble origin.
8. Rabbit with prunes
Rabbit with prunes used to be a “humble people dish” but in recent years it’s been picked up by chefs around the country and presented in more refined ways. The classic version of this Belgian dish combines rabbit with prunes to add sweetness and some croquettes on the side.
9. Sausage and mash
Granted, it’s nothing special, but sausage and mashed potatoes is a classic Belgian combination that’s now mainly served by grandparents or restaurants known for serving Belgian cuisine. It’s a hearty farmer’s dish and the kind of sausage used ranges from black to white and blood sausage. Often, the mashed potatoes will be mixed with a vegetable, like carrots, to create stoemp, the typical Belgian kind of filling mashed potatoes.
10. Steak tartare and martino sandwich
Not everyone’s a fan of steak tartare. This typical Belgian food consists of raw beef mixed with onions, mayonnaise, tabasco, egg yolk, capers, salt and a bunch of other things. Restaurants that take pride in their steak tartare will prepare it right at your table, showing you all the ingredients that go into it. As often in Belgium, this dish is mostly served with fries.
Not quite the same, but it needs to be mentioned, is the martino sandwich. You could say it’s the less pricy and on-the-go version of the steak tartare and beloved by many Belgians. I know several women who craved a martino while they were pregnant as they couldn’t have it then, and several people who place it almost as highly as fries as the dish to have after a trip abroad.
So what is it? It’s a baguette with a spread of “Américain”, a form of steak tartare but as a sandwich spread, with spices, pickles, onions and ketchup. Every itself-respecting sandwich bar will have it on its menu.
Eat it at:
Bistro Mathilda in the Belgian coastal city of Oosten is known for its steak tartare, prepared at your table. This place is always packed and when you sample its refined cuisine, you’ll know why. Read my review of Bistro Mathilda.
11. Ham and endive in the oven
Endive is a typical Flemish vegetable and I remember my grandmother making ham and endive in the oven quite regularly when I was small. She would take slices of beautiful ham and wrap them around a whole knob of endive. The wraps would go into an oven dish, covered with a béchamel-and-cheese sauce. With mashed potatoes on the side, this dish is a classic of Belgian cuisine.
Endive is one vegetable I’ve never been a fan of, so my grandmother would always leave a couple of rolls fo ham empty for me 🙂
Vol-au-vent consists of a round bladder dough pastry of which the “lid” is cut off so that the pastry can be filled with a mixture of chicken and mushrooms in a creamy sauce. It’s usually served with fries, croquettes or mashed potatoes. Originally, the name “vol-au-vent” refers to the pastry and you can also find it in France as a snack or appetizer. Vol-au-vent as a massive main dish, though, is a typical Belgian food.
While sometimes translated as “Gingerbread”, speculoos is a unique kind of biscuit. It goes back to the Belgian and Dutch tradition of celebrating Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) on December 5/6 (Netherlands/Belgium) but has become commercialized and can now be found in stores throughout the year.
Often, when you order a coffee in a Belgian cafe, it’ll come with a little speculoos on the side. Try dipping it in and see how it tastes. It’s not bad!
Jenever or “Dutch gin” comes in all kinds of flavors and is served in small shot-like glass. It’s origins date back to the 14th century, when the Arabs invented distillation and brought it to Europe and Belgium wouldn’t be founded for still a few centuries. Now, the drink is typical both for Belgium and the Netherlands and especially in Belgium it’s mostly a Christmas drink. At Belgian Christmas markets, you’ll see stands only selling jenever and like some people visit Christmas markets for the Glühwein, Belgians will go to have jenever.
We even have a National Jenever Museum!
15. Asparagus Flemish-style
When it’s asparagus season, from April to June, the country goes asparagus crazy. You’ll find them in appetizers, main courses and even as ice cream for dessert. While there are many ways to prepare asparagus, Flemish-style is the classic way to have them. Boiled, then baked in a butter sauce and covered with hard-boiled pieces of egg, they make for a rich vegetable dish to combine with meat and croquettes. Or, why not, fries.
Aside from the Belgian dishes listed, there are also a ton of regional specialties. Some you’ll also find outside their region of origin, others hardly. It would be a bit crazy to list all regional foods in Belgium, so I just want to name a few.
Gentse Waterzooi originated in – indeed – the city of Ghent and consists of a stew with carrots, onions, celeriac, leeks, potatoes and a bunch of herbs in a watery soup based on egg yolk, cream and vegetable broth. Originally, the stew was made with fish but nowadays the use of chicken is more common.
I already mentioned syrup from Liège when talking about the meatballs, but this regional specialty also goes really well on a sandwich combined with bacon or cheese. Honestly, try it!
A final regional specialty I want to mention, are the mattentaarten, a round kind of cake made with different kinds of milk, almonds and bladder dough.
Famous Belgian food
Aside from waffles, the most famous Belgian “foods” are probably beer and chocolate. I haven’t listed them separately in this post because they both form a more general category of Belgian foods, rather than one thing. If you’d like to have some proper Belgian chocolate, head toward the Sablon area in Brussels. There you’ll find famous names like Pierre Marcolini. A lesser-known favorite of mine is Frederic Blondeel.
While lots of the bigger beers can be had all over Belgium, in origin, Belgian beers are still very much connected to their region of origin. For more information about Belgian beers, check out my Belgian beers series.
And that was it! I hope that with this post, you don’t have to ask yourself what to eat in Belgium anymore. As you could see, the food of Belgium is mostly hearty and “proper” food. While we are pretty proud of our food in Belgium, most Belgians won’t eat typical Belgian dishes every day. Just like world cuisine can be found in almost every city, we like to change things up at home as well.
And my favorite Belgian dish? Well, there’s nothing like a greasy pack of fries from the fries shack after a long trip abroad.
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This post came about as a collaboration with Alison Cornford-Matheson, a Canadian travel writer and photographer and the founder of Cheeseweb.eu. She’s also a fun person to have food with and the author of The Foodie Guide to Brussels: Local Tips for Restaurants, Shops, Hotels, and Activities, available in digital and paperback formats.
Alison landed in Belgium in 2005 and, over the years, has become passionate about slow and sustainable travel, in Europe and beyond. She is currently slow travelling through Europe in an RV, with her husband, Andrew, and two well-travelled cats. You can also follow her work on Google+, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.